CARACAS.— Although aware that she is fighting a difficult battle, Melissa Silva Cambra holds her consultations at the National Genetics Center with exemplary serenity. A poor family from Charallabo, in the municipality of Paz Castillo, Miranda State, has come to see her with a familiar request – “Please help us unravel this mystery!” - and the young Venezuelan doctor promises to determine the disease that has affected several generations of the Valero González family.
Melissa, who became a doctor and Clinical Genetics specialist in Cuba, has an additional reason to feel proud this morning: accompanying her is the eminent Cuban scientist Aracely Lantigua Cruz, one of her most beloved professors. “This case is research. Gather it for your doctorate, which you have to defend in Cuba. I’m going to be your tutor,” Aracely tells her, and the young doctor smiles, blushing: “Ok, prof…”
Beyond her obvious personal brilliance, the doctor is interested in helping these families. In addition to investigating the illness that afflicts them, she certifies the disability card that will allow them access, in their communal councils, to the economic support provided by the Bolivarian Government. This is healthcare with a heart, something missing from private medical insurance and services, even in Cardiology consultations.
For Melissa, this is normal: it was the first thing she learned in Cuba. When she graduated as a doctor in 1999 and returned to Venezuela, she worked for three years in indigenous communities, caring for those most in need. Later, at Havana’s University of Medical Sciences, she saw her love for genetics honored in a new degree.
“We have collaborated with an experienced medical and laboratory staff that has supported us clinically and scientifically. This Genetics Center receives support from Cuba’s National Medical Genetics Center. Cuba also supports the training of genetic advisors for communities, who coordinate with us in consultations, surveys, examinations, and evaluations,” Melissa explains. She is one professional example of a social mission that just turned ten years old: the José Gregorio Hernández Mission.
ALWAYS CHÁVEZ AND FIDEL
Cuban Dr. Carmen Maday Canosa Carballo, national adviser of the José Gregorio Hernández Mission, and the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Units, explains the beginnings of this effort: “The Mission, named in honor of a prominent Venezuelan physician, arose from an idea of Chávez and Fidel and had as background the psychosocial, pedagogical, and clinical genetic study of people with disabilities and their relatives carried out in Cuba between 2001 and 2003.”
In 2007, Fidel and Chávez agreed to begin a pilot study in the Caucaugua parish, in the municipality of Acevedo, in Miranda, which was later extended to the entire state and, in December 2007, to that of the Amacuro Delta. In 2008, it was extended throughout Venezuela, until on March 15 of that year, Chávez founded the José Gregorio Hernández Mission.
“This is how the first door-to-door visits came about,” Maday recalls, “and in 2010, the second study was carried out to evaluate the living conditions of these people and help them. In 2014, the third study showed that there were 336,200 people with disabilities, with predominance of physical and mobility impairments, followed by learning disabilities.”
In a decade, 1,681,290 homes have been visited and more than 358,000 Venezuelans have been registered with the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (CONAPDIS). Some 588,000 people have benefited from medical services and more than one million have been provided with technical and hearing aids and supplies. Dr. Maday adds that the Mission has treated 390,000 bedridden people and trained their families in their care.
“But the Mission,” according to its coordinator “not only deals with people with disabilities; it also includes pregnant women, especially those with high obstetric risk. On the other hand, we have 586 Comprehensive Rehabilitation Units in the country.”
Venezuela has a community genetics network aimed at detecting risks. Every state has personnel with master’s degrees in genetic counseling, who at the local level serve pregnant women, children, and other relatives. The system includes the National Genetics Center, which provides genetic counseling and clinical genetics services, laboratory tests and sonograms for prenatal and postnatal congenital disorder detection.
Its director, Dr. Lino Oviedo de la Cruz, summarizes the work of the last decade: more than 44,500 consultations – on genetic counseling, clinical genetics, neuropediatrics, and psychology – and 33,600 ultrasound studies; as well as more than 3,700 chromosome analyses, over 320 metabolic studies, and more than 190 molecular studies. This is first-world science provided free of charge by the Revolution.
As part of the Cuba-Venezuela Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement, the National Genetics Center employs personnel from both countries. On the day we visited, 11 new master’s degree students graduated, bringing the number of Venezuelan specialists integrated into the system in 17 States to 34. Five Cuban professors from the island’s National Medical Genetics Center, led by Dr. Aracely, served on the board of examiners.
MASTERS OF FRATERNITY
Calm, open to dialogue and always sporting a smile, Aracely Lantigua Cruz has several titles: she is senior researcher and consulting professor at the University of Medical Sciences of Havana; president of two master’s committees (in genetic counseling and medical genetics); and a professor of Clinical Genetics.
She speaks of another great: “I have to mention Fidel. When the disability work was done in Cuba and many cases of genetic origin were detected, he wanted these people to be cared for based on community training and requested an new master’s degree program to explain their problems and the possible preventive measures.”
The specialist adds: “About 700 doctors were trained with these characteristics, then we began the normal program, lasting two years; longer training and thesis defense research. That’s where the Venezuelan, Bolivian, Nicaraguan master’s students came in ... in short, we have been training genetic counselors for ALBA-TCP.”
Venezuela, which became the headquarters of that master’s degree course, today has the conditions to graduate specialists like Dr. Yohnny Colmenares, who on behalf of the 11 new genetic counseling master’s graduates improvised a beautiful speech. “Chávez always opened doors to victory for the Venezuelans. He left us the legacy of knowing that what we really want to be can be found in our hearts,” he stated, while also recalling Fidel and thanking his Cuban brothers and sisters for their solidarity. ”I do not doubt that what we receive now will be shared,” he predicted.
This is the common homeland alluded to by Dr. Leonardo Ramírez Rodríguez, deputy head of the Cuban Medical Mission in Venezuela, and Soraida Ramírez Osorio, president of the José Gregorio Hernández Mission Foundation.
At the Genetics Center, a bust of Chávez – who inaugurated the institution on October 14, 2009 – recalls in one phrase that this is “pure socialism.” Melissa, the young doctor trained in Cuba and now determined to unravel the mysteries that overwhelm families like that of the Valero Gonzalez, knows this well.